Because I’ve recently enjoyed reading poetry and because it’s poetry month, for my project book this month, I sought insights about poetry. How to Read a Poem (And Fall in Love with Poetry) by Edward Hirsch had been a national bestseller, and I loved the idea of being “tutored” in reading poetry. I can always use more motivation to “fall in love with poetry.”
How to Read a Poem gave me the motivation I desired. Hirsch speaks of poetry with ease and obvious pleasure. As a result, his essays about poetry just exude a “love of poetry” that is contagious (at least to me). Whenever I read poetry, I want to go and write my own. I am in awe of the ability to capture personal emotion and sensory experiences in perfectly crafted stanzas. Reading about how they are crafted only increases my admiration for the mode of writing. Although I still felt the craving to write poetry as I read this book, I also realized a sense of hopelessness in terms of my own creations: I’d rather simply admire other’s poetry.
Hirsch is, apparently, an accomplished poet. Obviously, he is also an incredibly well-read in poetry. These two aspects of Hirsch’s life gave the book a necessary depth and personality. He dosen’t write as an omniscient narrator: instead, he approaches poetry from his own life and experiences, and the result is heartfelt and intensely delicate. His passion for poetry is, I believe, why the second part of the title (“And Fall in Love with Poetry”) is what makes this book worth reading.
As a nonfiction tutorial in reading poetry, however, How to Read a Poem fell flat for me, the 100-page glossary/appendix notwithstanding (I didn’t read most of that). How to Read a Poem helped me approach poetry with greater admiration, but I honestly struggle with the idea of someone “helping” me read a poem. As I’ve read this, I’ve also been concurrently reading a volume of poetry (by Nikki Giovanni). It’s a well-annotated volume, with more than a hundred pages of end-notes explaining each poem, line by line, in terms of subject matter and style. I discovered that, while I’m normally a huge note reader, when it comes to poetry, I want to read poems for the enjoyment factor. I don’t necessarily need “help.” And if a poem is not either written well or intriguing in subject matter to engage my interest naturally, I am probably not going to appreciate the poem, footnotes of clarification not-withstanding.
That said, I will say that learning how poems are successfully formed does add to my appreciation for a poem. As I read the chapter about style (“A Made Thing”) and it discussed villanelles (a poem format that I absolutely love), I felt that seeing how the format created the emotional draw helped me to better love the poems. I “oohed” and “ahhed” over the villanelles. (Is there a collection or anthology just of villanelles? I must read it!)
Ultimately, although I enjoyed the enlightened foray into the “how’s” of poetry, I wouldn’t suggest How to Read a Poem as a tutorial to poetry. His expansive understanding and personal connection to poetry provides an intruging collection of essays about the subject, but he never seems successfully teach: he only inspires.
For me, that was more than enough. I have added many poets to my “to read” list!
How do you read poetry? Have you had any “training”?
This book sounds interesting. I don’t know if a book could teach me how to better read a poem either but the discussion of how they are created sounds neat. I don’t read a lot of poetry but Kinna has been posting tons this month and I am loving it. I really just like feeling it, though I suppose that isn’t very intellectual 😉
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Amy, that’s exactly my reaction to poetry: I like to feel it too. That’s as intellectual as I can get most times!
Learning how poems are created is the same thing as learning how to read them.
The English sonnet has a long, long tradition – back to the 16th century. If a poet chooses to write a sonnet, they’re putting themselves into this particular tradition. The villanelle has a different history, different connotations.
The poet makes her choices for a reason. Learning about why the poet makes her choices = learning how a poem works = learning how to read it.
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Amateur Reader, fair point. I think that’s why I enjoyed the book, because I did feel I was better appreciating poetry by the end.
I think a book like this would be sort of like Understanding Comics – it wouldn’t change my mind if I didn’t already like what it was describing, but it would deepen my understanding. So I’d have a better idea what I was looking at, when I looked at a poem. I think it would be quite some trick to “teach” somebody to like poetry if they didn’t already.
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Jenny, I think you’re exactly right — it’s not a book that will convince anyone that poetry is awesome. But it gave me all sorts of warm fuzzies since I already enjoy poetry! It made me want to read MORE and MORE.
I read this book last year and enjoyed it — but I agree with you on what you say, it isn’t really a “tutorial” as its’ title might imply. “Poetry for Dummies” is actually a better book for that (and it still inspires).
I like Hirsch’s “Poet’s Choice” so much more — I go back to that book often; it’s a collection of essays (originally newspaper columns), each one is fairly short, and introduces me to a new poet or new poetic concept.
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Valerie, Poet’s Choice sounds very good. I’ll have to look in to i. I found I enjoyed the Norton Intro to Poetry as more of a tutorial — as Amateur Reader mentioned, learning about the history of the form helps to actually “teach” poetry. And that did that for me. It’s a huge book, with tons of examples!
It’s funny. I didn’t like poetry in high school but in college I joined a poetry performance group with one poem written and found that I had a gift for writting. Who knew? Poetry grew on me and surrounding myself in that enviornment where it became alive was insiring. So needless to say, I make my poetry and the ones I read come alive. I give them a voice. Some poems speak to me and some don’t.
Ericka, what a great story. I have to agree with the “some poems speak to me” thing. Not everything is for everyone.
I like poetry but I’m very picky. I tend to prefer ones that rhyme or failing that ones with beautiful descriptions, many just read like regular pieces of writing to me. If I can’t read it in the way I reckon the poet heard it in their head then that’s the cue I take that the writer isn’t for me.
A book on how to enjoy it sounds interesting, though I’d be wary of it sounding like teachers…
Charlie, this book is quite a far shot from teachers. Hirsch writes with a passion for the subject and I learned somethings from him, but mostly it’s about how he loves poetry and does not feel lecture-y at all.
As a practitioner, I’m very interested in this topic, but what I wanted to add here is that Hirsch also has a thought-provoking article on how we should be educating our kids in the current issue of New York Review of Books.
Shelley, that sounds like an interesting article. Off to see if I can find it online.